And by research, I mean the traditional idea of scouring over primary sources and stuffy texts in search of information. I don't like it because, well, at times it can be downright boring. And sometimes it can even seem unnecessary in relation to the realm of fiction. I mean, the idea is that we (creative writers) are the architects of worlds borne from our own deep wells of pure, distilled imagination...
That's all well and good of course. Imagination is key to our endeavors but, how far can it really get us?
Not very, as I see it.
Even the most immensely alien universes and unseemly far-reaching scenarios invented by the mind must have, somewhere, at its root, a basis in real-world experience or past-learned knowledge. That is, a person who spent their entire life in barren room without access to literature or any type of media exposing the outside world would, I believe, have a very bland view of the universe (or at most a severely limited one). Maybe I'm wrong about this (as I have not done any specific research on the subject!!) but I do believe that the mind, especially the creative mind, needs to be fed information in one form or another in order to be used to its full potential.
Not only that, but when writing about a certain subject - let's say sword-forging - we owe it to our audience to write about the forging of swords with integrity and some knowledge, even if that knowledge was gained only just prior to the act of writing. It's really not the sort of thing that should be pulled, ham-fisted, from the depths of our behinds.
A few examples.
My good friend and now published author, Timothy Cook, began his own writing career at least partially out of frustration, as a practicing physician, over the way in which the medical profession was portrayed by writers who had, at the very best, only a passing familiarity with the world of medicine and all that came with that vast territory. His response to this void - because, let's face it, how many of us have time to learn what it takes doctors years to acquire? - was to write The Book of Drachma (of which the first book is out now!), an epic fantasy mixing time travel, period-drama intrigue, and an examination of what it means to be a healer.
And aside from already having gained the necessary knowledge to make this tale believable (and accurate from a medical standpoint), I am certain Tim had to do additional research as well into the lifestyles and culture of those living in Britain during the middle ages - unless of course he has access to a time machine.
Another quick example I'd like to touch on though is the work of the late Michael Crichton, whose novels always seemed to be crafted with the utmost care and attention to detail in regards to their subject matter, be it the resurrection of prehistoric beasts or the slaying of mythological creatures or treasure hunts into deadly dangerous wilds. Though his works were often fantastical in their premise, beneath the adventure and the fantasy is a foundation laid out by gathered information. Perhaps the knowledge was not always from accurate sources or applied correctly, but the leg work was there, and it is something I have always admired in the man's work.
But research really is boring.
"One form or another", for me, is the key here. While I've painted research as being a thing of book stacks and long hours pouring over tiny print and note-taking, this is far from our only option. Research indeed comes in many shapes and sizes.
It can be getting lost in your own city.
It can be experiencing a disaster and living to tell about it.
It can be taking a trip to somewhere new and exotic.
It can be listening to the amazing story of a stranger or a friend.
It can be taking on a new job.
It can be missing your flight home and taking an unexpected adventure.
It can be living your life, the one thing you have that no else has seen the way you do.
What's important, though, is that we take hold of this new information and apply to our writing to give it truth. Because even we, who deal in worlds composed of lies, must be built upon some truth, lest our structures sink into formless, muddy ground. Not that poetic license isn't an important force (because stories based entirely in logic and fact can be, well, really dull), but a reader can only put up with so much blatant undigested fecal matter in their literature before deciding that the writer has no respect for their intelligence.
Write what you know, and not what you don't. But the really important thing about that is to make an effort to know more today than you did the day before. And then write about it.